The Way Forward

This has been a good week. Exactly why is the topic of an upcoming post, but for now, let’s just say that it’s the kind of week that makes all the work worth it. So I thought I’d write a post about persistence. Specifically, I thought I’d write a post about two different ways of being persistent as a writer.

For many writers, persistence means not giving up on a book as long as they still have the slightest interest in it or energy for it. They write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, until the book is the best book it can possibly be. Then they query and query, and rewrite and rewrite again, because they believe in this story, in this book.

The danger of the stick-to-it method, of course, is that you believe too long in something that’s fundamentally flawed. There are some stories that are not strong enough to sustain a 90,000-word book. There are some characters too damaged for the mainstream market you crave. If you’re too blindly committed to the stick-to-it method, you risk gutting a work of art to create a salable product.

The strength of the method is that it teaches revision, and revision is the most powerful writing tool. Being a good editor—by which I mean a good hacker-upper-of-manuscripts, not a good poker-of-sentences—is more important than almost anything else. (There are a few exceptions. Daily word production. Having a wonderful critique partner. An ergonomic desk set up.) Sticking with a manuscript teaches revision and persistence fast and permanently.

I have the utmost respect for this way of doing things, and many writing professionals will tell you it is the only way to get your first book published. But I will tell you right now it is not my way. To put it in the best possible light, I am always eager for new challenges. This is me not-saying I have a short attention span sometimes. I can rewrite a book a few times, but then I want to work on something else. (This is also why I have a large drawer of unfinished needlepoint work.) My way is to put the manuscript in a drawer and call it collateral damage. I might come back later for another look, but for now, it is road kill in the rearview mirror.

My way is what I think of as the way forward. The way forward is not as obvious as the chipping away at the manuscript until its perfection is revealed, or never giving up on a story’s salability. Sometimes, I wish I were the chipping-away type. Often, I wish I had infinite faith in my creations.

Instead, my “way forward” has everything to do with not getting stuck, no matter what that means. Some days, it means accepting that thirty rejections are not just the first thirty on your way to eighty rejections followed by a surprise, precipitous trip up the New York Times bestseller list. Sometimes, it means rejecting your temptation to decide you suck just because there is no evidence to the contrary. What it always means is that you have to keep going. The path is unclear or impossibly brutal, but the impulse can’t die. You spend a lot of time in one of the two following binds:

One: You are standing at the foot of a path that ascends ridiculously high and ridiculously quickly, a rocky scrabble with an invisible destination at the end. This is the sensation of having to promote a book when you have never promoted a book before. It’s also the sensation of beginning to write a new book.

Two: You are standing in a clearing, surrounded by impenetrably thick woods. You know there is a path that you are supposed to be on, but you can’t see it. The world looks like a wall of woods. Or a wall of words. This is the sensation of knowing a book isn’t working but not how to fix it. It’s the sensation of not-knowing the next scene, or the one after that, or the one after that.

They are different binds. The way to deal with the first is to put one foot in front of the other. The way to deal with the second is to slowly, patiently, work your way along the wall, trying everything that looks like an opening, reminding yourself that there will be missteps, gently, soothingly, talking yourself out of panic. The woods will open. The path will become clear.

Only one thing is known for sure: If you quit, failure is certain. If you stop writing, you are not a writer. What follows from it is that the only way forward is forward. On many days the meaning of that is obscure.  I have no answers, only this advice: put your hands out, nudge your toe forward, greet the next moment.